HMS Canopus

HMS Canopus is most famous for missing the Battle of Coronel of 1914, the first British naval defeat for a century. When constructed she was a first class battleship, typical of the pre-Dreadnaught era in that she carried four different sizes of guns, ranging from her four powerful 12in guns down to six 3 pounders.

The Canopus class of battleships were lighter faster versions of the Majestic class ships. They were designed for operations on the China station, where the rising power of Japan was seen as a threat, and indeed all but the Canopus would serve on that station, only returning to home waters after the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese alliance in 1905.

The Canopus featured two advances in design. The first was the use of water-tube boilers instead of cylindrical boilers. These gave more power from the same size of boiler. Second was the use of German Krupp armour instead of Harvey steel. This meant that the 6in armour belt on the Canopus was the equivalent of 8in of earlier armour (Majestic class ships had a 9in belt of Harvey armour).

The Canopus is normally described as an old battleship in accounts of the battle of Coronel. In fact she was only 15 years old, having been completed in 1899. Many of the most important British battleships of the Second World War would be over twenty years old at the start of that war (the five Queen Elizabeth class battleships had all been completed by 1916, the last of the five Revenge class ships by 1917, both the Renown and the Repulse by 1916 and even HMS Hood was complete by 1920).

What made the Canopus an “old” ship by 1914 was the revolution in battleship design ushered in by HMS Dreadnaught. The appearance of the all-big-gun ship made ships like the Canopusobsolete overnight. In 1906 she went from being a relatively new first class battleship to being a “pre-dreadnaught”.

The Canopus carried four 12in guns in two turrets, one fore and one aft. Secondary firepower was provided by twelve 6in guns, six on each side of the ship along with ten 12pdr and six 3pdr guns. The real significance of the Dreadnaught was the increase in the number of the heaviest guns. Many later British battleships carried an expanding range of small guns (the Queen Elizabeth class ships carried fourteen 6in guns in addition to their eight 15in main guns).

Plans of Canopus Class Battleships
Plans of Canopus Class Battleships

The Canopus served in the Mediterranean from 1899-1903 and then in the Channel Fleet. In 1906 she was given a modern fire control system and in 1907-8 she underwent a refit, before returning to the Mediterranean Fleet between April 1908 and December 1909. From there she returned to the 4th Division of the Home Fleet. In May 1912 she joined the reserve at the Nore before being sent to the 3rd Fleet at Pembroke in 1913.

At the outbreak of the First World War the Canopus joined the 8th Battle Squadron in the Channel. On 23 August she was sent to act as a guard ship off Cape St. Vincent. In October 1914 she was ordered south, to join Admiral Cradock’s South American Squadron.

By October Cradock had learnt that Admiral von Spee, with a squadron of five German cruisers, was heading towards the South Atlantic. Cradock decided to take his squadron into the Pacific. He erroneously believed that the Canopus could only make 13kts, so decided not to take her into the Pacific. At the Battle of Coronel (1 November 1914) Cradock was lost, along with the Monmouth and Good Hope.

If she had been at Coronel, the Canopus’s four 12in guns would have been ranged against the sixteen 8.2in guns on the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst of which twelve could have fired on her at any one time. It is perhaps most likely that the presence of Canopus with the squadron at Coronel would have convinced Admiral von Spee not to risk an attack. Five modern cruisers against three older cruisers is an appealing fight, the same five cruisers against three cruisers and a battleship not so tempting.

After learning of the destruction of Cradock’s squadron at Coronel the Canopus returned to Port Stanley. There she was deliberately beached on mud flats to create a stable gunnery platform, and some of her 12 pdr guns were sent ashore.

On 8 December von Spee’s squadron arrived at the Falkland Islands. The first shots of the battle were fired by the 12in guns of the Canopus. Although no hits are recorded, this unexpected fire, combined with unexpected presence of two British battlecruisers (Inflexible and Invincible) convinced von Spee not to attack the British ships while they were taking on coal. Those opening shots were the total extent of the Canopus’s contribution to the battle. Even if she had not been beached, she was too slow to have taken

With the German threat in the South Atlantic gone, the squadron that had been assembled at the Falklands was rapidly dispersed. The Canopusreturned to the Mediterranean where she took part in the bombardments of the Dardanelles on 2 and 18 March 1915. She also took part in the blockage of Smyrna and the main Gallipoli landings.

The Canopus returned to home waters early 1916 where she was paid off and used as an accommodation ship. In a sign of the growing importance of airpower, in 1917 her 12pdr and 3pdr guns were replaced by light anti-aircraft guns. In 1920 the Canopuswas sold off to be broken up.

Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed




Armour – Belt


 - Bulkheads


 - Barbettes


 - Gun Houses


 - Casements


 - Conning Tower

12 in

 - Deck



421ft 6in


Four 12in (fore and aft)
Twelve 6in quick firing (six on each side)
Ten 12pdr quick firing
Six 3pdr
Four 18in submerged torpedo tubes

Crew complement



12 November 1897


December 1899

Sold for break up


British Battleships 1889-1904 New Revised Edition, R A Burt. Magnificent study of the Royal Navy's pre-dreadnought battleships, amongst the most powerful ships in the world when built, but seen as obsolete by the outbreak of war in 1914. Traces the development of the 'classic' pre-dreadnought design and the slow increase in the power of the secondary armament, leading up to the all-big gun ships that followed. [read full review]
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The Scapegoat: The life and tragedy of a fighting admiral and Churchill's role in his death, Steve R. Dunn. Fascinating biography of Admiral Kit Cradock, the defeated commander at the battle of Coronel in 1914. Also serves as a history of the late Victorian and Edwardian Navy, looking at its strengths and flaws in the period leading up to the First World War, the Royal Navy's first serious trial since the Napoleonic Wars. [read full review]
cover cover cover


Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (22 August 2007), HMS Canopus ,

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